Could driverless cars own themselves?

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

  • Published
VW Beetle Herbie on displayImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Hollywood's famous Herbie was a VW Beetle with a mind of its own

Forget buying an electric-powered Tesla, sharing a Zipcar or hiring an Uber - the most disruptive force in getting from A to B on four wheels could be cars that own themselves.

Emancipated automobiles sounds like a crazy concept. But the man advocating the idea goes further: he thinks they'll have babies.

OK, let's briefly shift into reverse and introduce Mike Hearn.

The Zurich-based software developer is both an ex-Google engineer and one of the leading Bitcoin software developers. The virtual currency plays a key role in his scheme, but we'll get to that in a bit.

For now, the key thing to know is that he's not actively working on his transport-of-the-future concept, but instead offers it up as a "thought experiment" to inspire.

Image source, Thinkstock
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In Mr Hearn's vision of the future, cars would be programmed to keep their profits slim

Coded to be cheap

At the heart of his vision is the idea that once driverless cars become commonplace, most people won't want or need to own a vehicle any more.

And in a world dominated by self-steering taxis, each ride becomes cheaper if the vehicles are autonomous rather than owned and run by major corporations.

Tomorrow's Transport is a series exploring innovation in all forms of mobility against a backdrop of global warming and rising population.

"The funny thing about a car that owns itself is that we can encode whatever rules we like into its software," explains Mr Hearn.

"We can program it to make a little bit of profit, so it's got some money for a rainy day, but not excessive amounts. We can make it the most moral, socially minded capitalist possible."

Image source, Thinkstock
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Different cars could offer different rates depending on where and when they drive

Instead of controlling which car goes where via proprietary software, the cars would communicate with people and the surrounding infrastructure via a new internet-based commerce system, he dubs the Tradenet.

"You would be using an app that goes onto Tradenet and says: 'Here I am, this is where I want to go, give me your best offers,'" the developer says.

"The autonomous taxis out there would then submit their best prices, and that might be based on how far away they are, how much fuel they have, the quality of their programming.

"Eventually you pick one - or your phone does it for you - and it's not just by the cheapest price, but whether the car has a good track record of actually completing rides successfully and how nice a vehicle it is."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Uber's alternative minicab services could face competition from self-owning cars

The car, in turn, would communicate with the sensor-equipped roads it drives on, offering its passengers the ability to pay extra to go in faster lanes or unlock access to shortcuts - the cost of which would be determined by how many others wanted the same thing.

Employed by automobiles

To be clear, these robots-on-wheels would not be self-aware.

"We're not assuming any kind of Skynet-style artificial intelligence," Mr Hearn states, referring to the Terminator movies.

But they would be programmed to seek self-improvement in order to avoid becoming obsolete. This would involve using earnings to hire human programmers to tweak their code.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mercedes' self-driving concept car allows passengers to face each other

After an update the cars could run the new software during half their pick-ups but not the other half, so as to determine whether to make the upgrades permanent.

Other costs would include paying to be refuelled, insured and maintained.

To ensure the system would scale up to meet demand, Mr Hearn suggests something a bit odd: the cars could club together with any surplus earnings they had to pay factories to build more of them.

"After it rolls off the production line... the new car would compete in effect with the existing cars, but would begin by giving a proportion of its profits to its parents.

"You can imagine it being a birth loan, and eventually it would pay off its debts and become a fully-fledged autonomous vehicle of its own."

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Profitable cars could pool their earnings to order "children" from a factory

Death, too, is woven into the system, helping weed out clapped-out models.

"If there were too many cars and the human population drops, for example, then some of those cars could put themselves in long-term parking and switch themselves off for a while to see if things improve," Mr Hearn says. "Or you could get immigrant vehicles driving to another city looking for work.

"Ultimately, they could just run out of fuel one day. They would go bankrupt, effectively, and become available for salvage."

Image source, Thinkstock
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The cars might migrate to different cities if competition became too tough

Since banks might struggle with this concept - at least at first - it's proposed the vehicles use a digital currency like bitcoins for their transactions, since the "wallets" used to store and trade the digital currency are not restricted to people or organisations.

"Some people would find it creepy and weird, and they would refuse to do business with machines," acknowledges Mr Hearn. "They would hate the idea of a machine being an economic equal to them - a modern Ludditism, if you like.

"But one interesting thing computers can do is prove to a third party what software they are running.

"And then it would be the most transparent business partner. You would have no risk of it ripping you off, no risk of misunderstandings, and some people would actually find that preferable."

Image source, Andy Artz
Image caption,
Mr Hearn is currently more involved with Bitcoin than his self-owned car concept

Changing course

One expert, who has considered the proposal, suggested it was both "realistic and idealistic" at the same time.

Realistic, because the technologies involved are likely to become available within the next 10 to 20 years. Idealistic, because it flies in the face of how the car industry works.

"I can't see it happening," remarks Prof David Bailey, an automotive industry expert at Aston Business School in Birmingham.

"There will still be economies of scale in production and in purchasing.

"So, I think you'll still get dominant groups emerging - maybe you'll sign up with Bumblecar one day and the next day switch over to Freewheel or something - but there will still be these big groups that operate fleets.

"And they would be able to out-compete individual self-owned vehicles."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Lutz self-driving pods will be tested in the UK this year

After hearing Mr Hearn wax lyrical about his vision, it's somewhat depressing to hear he also thinks we are being steered towards a different destination: a world in which his ex-employer Google, which is spending a small fortune researching self-drive vehicles, and existing car pick-up services such as Uber and Lyft, may come to dominate the roads.

But a backlash could still change our course, he believes.

"We're heading towards even more centralisation of technology and power and profit - we see this in all sectors," he states.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Google hopes to release a version of its self-driving car between 2017 and 2020

"Even when people have designed decentralised technologies, what you get is a winner-takes-all environment where one or two big Silicon Valley start-ups spend their way to dominance and then become entrenched.

"The autonomous agent idea is almost a reaction against the current trend. Perhaps the solution is actually more technology and radical decentralisation."

Maybe. But the one thing still needed, ironically, would be an organisation willing to drive the concept forward.

To hear more about Mike Hearn's idea of self-owning cars you can watch his presentation on the subject.

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